Thursday, September 4, 2008
Even if you were hiding in a cave in Afghanistan, I still think you could hear the roar from the American presidential election. Without rest, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain passionately disagree on virtually every policy issue we face, but the war in Afghanistan is different: “Time for a troop surge,” or “Refocusing on the Central Front” – they both want more troops. In a year, all these election promises will be over, and the next author for America’s newfound saga in Afghanistan will begin. But just because these candidates’ “grand plans” sound good on the campaign trail, doesn’t mean that they will be the “right plans” for the future. Afghanistan is a vastly complex place that cannot be understood from the American political stump.
I don’t want to sound pessimistic about America’s hopes for Afghanistan, but we must appreciate that we have limits as foreign occupiers. It is up to the Afghans to ultimately purge government corruption and settle on a system that works for them. In the mean time, the West can provide some security and aid, but we do not have the legitimacy or the know-how to tackle these problems for them. This is why the U.S. needs to take a fresh look at Afghanistan for what it is, not for what we think we can make it.
Setting the Stage
From a Western perspective, it seems absurd that we haven’t routed the Taliban. How could this medieval band of Pashtun fighters, armed with little more than a Kalashnikov and a Koran, withstand our Western force? Well, to start, our forces are having a hard time understanding how to handle these rural Afghan societies where the Taliban seek refuge.
As Canadian Brig. Gen. Denis Thomson said in an interview earlier this month, “I don’t know that the Taliban (is) getting stronger ... The difference is they’re not holding any of the ground they’re attacking us on.” So despite our air force, tanks and modern weaponry, it appears that we are about to enter a new phase of the insurgency. Realistically, how deep into tribal Afghanistan are we going to chase these guerillas? Or more to the point, what repercussions might we face by doing so?
In 1979, Leonid Brezhnev and the Politburo moved the Red Army into Afghanistan. Major cities like Herat and the capital, Kabul, were conquered. Looking back, it seems obvious why the Soviets, at the peak of the technologically-hyped Cold War would overlook rural Afghan tribal society. However, this same tribal society birthed the mujahideen, or “freedom fighters,” who by using guerrilla tactics were able to bleed the Soviets into exiting Afghanistan. This is what the Taliban is trying to do today: bleed our forces by luring us to fight on the village level – a level that by definition, we foreigners, do not understand.
It wasn’t always supposed to be such a cumbersome military production in Afghanistan. During the 2001 American-led invasion, we were able to oust the Taliban with a light cocktail of American Special Forces and a band of anti-Taliban warlords known as the Northern Alliance. This coalition proved both efficient and effective in booting the Taliban from their role as the “legitimate” government in Kabul.
So what happened? Today’s critics will say that this “light footprint” era has failed in Afghanistan. They argue that increasing our current troop level of 31,000 as of September, is necessary to defeat the so-called, “Taliban revival.” But an Iraq-type “surge” as these critics often insist on, will not bring peace to Afghanistan. Rather, it runs the risk of inspiring Afghan nationalists to sympathize with the Taliban, thus making it near impossible for us to run operations in the villages that the Taliban now hides in.
The American-led air strikes on Aug. 22 that killed 90 civilians were possibly the result of a Taliban loyalist deliberately feeding our intelligence false information. Our troops are not trained for this non-conventional resistance campaign. Sending more troops will not make things better in Afghanistan and will continue to weaken our political hand in the region.
Redefining Our Military Policy
Frankly, the American public and our allies are uncertain about broadening our mission in Afghanistan, especially after the Caucasus flare-up between Russia and Georgia.
The Taliban know this, and they will continue to wage an insurgency to try to make it “not worth it” for the coalition. Germany and the Netherlands are already looking to significantly reduce their military commitment and, it’s not impossible to understand why. Instead of trying to fight a costly counter-insurgency campaign, we would do better to focus on counter-terrorism. Besides, no one learned how to fly a plane into the World Trade Center from tribal Afghanistan anyway.
In a perfect world, we would like the central government of Afghanistan to secure its borders and assert its legal legitimacy in both urban and rural areas. But until then, some academics have suggested that a “troop redistribution” is needed to help transition the whole country under Kabul’s control. While this proposal sounds nice, it would stretch our resources in a way we cannot afford. This would be a typical mistake by the West, doing what we think would work.
Instead, we should look to the experts – the Afghans. One initiative would be to give the Afghan army a greater role in day-to-day security. Backed by our Special Forces, this combination would work to bolster the legitimacy of Kabul and help to discredit brewing colonial conspiracy theories.
Recently Defense Sec. Robert Gates came around to this very notion. Gates endorsed a plan that would provide $20 billion to double the size of the Afghan Army to 120,000 active-duty troops. Unlike the notoriously corrupt Afghan police, the Afghan Army with its high morale, is willing and battle-tested. Of course, they will be dependent on American trainers and equipment, but this is an investment worth making. Afghans are proud people and with the right support, they will show that they are competent to defend themselves against the brutality of the Taliban.
Looking to the Afghan Future
A strong military can help provide security for Afghanistan. But it will be the rebuilding that will determine what, if any, legacy we might leave behind. We must remind ourselves that we do not have the will, or the desire to occupy this country forever so we should focus on empowering Afghans to carry out local-level building projects that would directly improve their lives.
Large-scale projects may be easier for us, but as the British and the Soviets might say, that is just not how Afghanistan works. We should look to simple projects that include all of Afghanistan’s ethnic fronts to create jobs and continue to avoid ethnic tensions.
As for Kabul, Western funding and know-how has been able to set up an effective central bank with a stable currency. Some might scoff at the concept of democracy in Afghanistan, but they do have an elected parliament, which has been perhaps the most effective method yet for distributing government aid to the countryside.
We can help rebuild Afghanistan, but we must recognize our limits. Both presidential candidates should realize that the more we try to “takeover the situation” the less incentive we create for the Afghan government to take charge and reform. We should not continue to tarnish our credibility and weaken our global authority by trying to do something that we simply cannot do.
Originally Published in the UCLA Daily Bruin